We all know that presidential campaign journalism has degenerated over the last decade or two, but in this perceptive analysis Thomas Patterson presents hard evidence detailing just how bad it's become: how press coverage has become overly fixated on "the game" — the political jockeying and strategizing of the presidential candidates — at the expense of issue-based substantive reporting. Using sophisticated content analysis, he shows how "good news" stories have declined while "bad news" reporting has become the norm; how the gap has widened between what reporters and the public consider salient issues; how descriptive news has become all but replaced by interpretive reporting; and how the media routinely distorts issues by focusing on controversy and conflict. At least in part because of this unrelenting approach, he says, voters have become increasingly disillusioned and campaigns have become a ritual to be endured for all concerned.
While presidential campaigns have become increasingly organized around the news media in the last two decades, Patterson maintains that the problem lies beyond the press. It is built into the electoral system itself, he says, which asks the media to fill a role it cannot reasonably play. He contends "that attempts to convince the press to behave differently can have only a marginal influence on the quality of the campaign." The values of journalism are fundamentally at odds with those of politics, he says, and the news media is therefore acting quite predictably. The electoral process itself is "out of order." Even if journalists had no interest in the presidential campaign, the responsibility would fall to them by default since the election system is built on entrepreneurial candidacies, floating voters, freewheeling interest groups, and weak political parties. In short, "it is an unworkable arrangement: the press is not equipped to give order and direction to a presidential campaign. And when we expect it to do so, we set ourselves up for yet another turbulent election."
In the final chapter, Patterson proposes that the system could be improved by shortening the nominating period by starting it in June and limiting it to six to eight weeks. A narrowing of the campaign would relieve journalistic pressures to fill out seemingly endless months of campaign coverage by organizing a presidential election "for the press, not by the press."
Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.